Maria Montessori was born in Italy, in 1870. The only child born to her well-educated, middle-class parents, Montessori was said to be spirited and bright. At a time when educational and professional opportunities for women were limited, and much to the chagrin of her father, Montessori attended a technical school for boys. She went on to become the first woman in Italy to graduate from medical school, earning her degree in 1896. Pediatrics and psychiatry were her specialties.
In 1900, Montessori began work at a school for mentally disabled children. Regarded as “undesirables,” these children were believed at the time to be void of potential. Through extensive observation and study, Montessori began to develop tools and methods to educate these children. The success she had with the mentally disabled children inspired her to try her methods with other populations. Montessori opened her first school for typically developing children, Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, in 1907.
With the publication of her first book, “The Montessori Method,” in 1909, Montessori’s philosophy and practice spread. In 1911, the first Montessori school was opened in the United States, and nearly 100 more would be operational in the U.S. within the next few years. Her methods were embraced as an alternative to the rote memorization and inflexible discipline common to educational practices of the time. Her emphasis on peace was also recognized as a vital element of education in a world at war.
“Children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibilities of their future.”
~ Maria Montessori
Trained as a doctor, but known as a teacher and academic, Montessori traveled extensively throughout her life, lecturing and establishing teacher training centers around the world. In 1934, facing the takeover of her schools by the fascist government, Montessori fled Italy. The remainder of her life was spent in Spain, India, and The Netherlands. Montessori was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. She died in 1952, at the age of 81.
While these dates and places illustrate the general trajectory of Montessori’s life, they do not tell her story in its entirety. The question of what inspired her philosophy remains. In order to answer this question, one must look at the world in which Montessori lived.
One common theme throughout Montessori’s life was the desire to overcome barriers to education. She seemed to have a sense, from a very young age, that she had potential others did not see. At a time when women and children did not have the rights we take for granted today, Montessori proved that she was capable of achieving levels of success on par with and exceeding those of her male counterparts. One might guess then, her ability to see potential where others did not, to see the potential of all humans, showed itself through her interest in teaching the “unteachable.”
Finally, the influences of war, and life in a fascist state must not be ignored. Her country was in turmoil for all of her life. She saw first hand, the effects of war and misplaced power: death, poverty, oppression. It was her life’s work to create a new and better social order, through enabling young children to reach their full, natural potential.
"The child is both a hope and a promise for mankind."
~ Maria Montessori